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Art & Design

Spanish, Head of Christ or a Saint, ca. 1220-1240, Museum Works of Art Fund

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gallery location RA518.European9

Head of Christ or a Saint

Unknown artist, Spanish
Head of Christ or a Saint, ca. 1220-1240
Walnut, polychromy
81.3 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm (32 x 20 x 20 inches)
Museum Works of Art Fund 59.131

The identity and original context of this massive head has not been clearly determined. Because of its scale, it was long thought to be Saint Christopher, a ferryman of prodigious size who was known to protect travelers. Saint James has also been suggested, but there are no signs of his identifying pilgrim’s hat and seashell. The head’s direct gaze, faint smile, and facial symmetry offer a third possibility: a variation of the image of Christ in Majesty that was often depicted in sculptural relief above the central portals of medieval churches. The back of the sculpture is roughly carved, suggesting a fixed placement in a niche or against a wall, either outdoors or within a church. Once brightly painted, it was meant to be seen from a distance, and may have been venerated by pilgrims along the route to the shrine of Saint James of Compostela in Spain.

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